Once We Lived Here at the King’s Head Theatre
Sitting in the back room theatre of the King’s Head pub in Islington, the echo of a rowdy crowd and pop music starts creeping through the walls. The distractions are poor competition for the cast of Once We Lived Here: the award-winning musical has finally arrived in London after impressing audiences in New York and Australia.
The scene unfolding on the stage is unfamiliar: the Australian production is set on a sheep farm in the bush, battling against a merciless drought. We watch, intrigued, as the children of dying matriarch Claire McPherson (Simone Craddock) congregate to face their fears and long-buried secrets.
Written and directed by Dean Bryant, associate director on Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert, the play’s over-exaggerated characters remain engaging for their vulnerability and humour. Melle Stewart steals the show as eldest daughter Amy, the caretaker of both the farm and her mother throughout the decade since her father’s death. Torn between duty and responsibility, she is unable to abandon a homestead that has been in the family for generations.
Her brother Shaun (Iestyn Arwel) is a layabout who cannot commit to a career, and her younger sister Lecy (Belinda Wollaston) is a city-dwelling social climber who prioritises status and wealth. A former farmhand, Burke (Shaun Rennie), also reappears after an eight-year-long absence, raising the suspicions of ex-lover Amy. All five actors successfully balance comedy, singing and a tear-jerking script with compelling emotion.
The trials of the bush are emphasised with careful flourish: sand, before the stage and along the seating aisle, introduces the dry heat of the outback to North London, and a set of wood and corrugated metal, designed by Christopher Hone, transforms from farm porch to shearing shed with swift movement.
Song numbers rival the dialogue for wit and poignancy, and musical director Alex Beetschen and composer Matthew Frank deliver a range of memorable tunes, including the show-stopping second act opener: We Like It That Way. Admittedly, the singing is too forceful for the intimate 50-seat capacity of the King’s Head Theatre, but humming along and tapping one’s foot in appreciation becomes an unconscious reflex.
A live band adds to the atmosphere and helps to diffuse the severity of the play’s subtexts: loss, responsibility, sacrifice, love and loyalty. Containing adult themes and language, Once We Lived Here is not one for the kids but it’s definitely one not to miss!
Once We Lived Here is at The King’s Head Theatre until 26th April 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Once We Lived Here here: